from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday 30 June 2011

Elements of Poetry Part 1: poetry & the heart

I'm about to start the exciting and rewarding process of working with a new group of poets on my correspondence course. What I know, but they might or might not yet, is the scale and compass of the journey to the heart of poetry, which mirrors of course the journey of poetry to the heart, if you get what I mean.

I know I keep promising you some words about books I'm reading. It's just that my lit-crit braincell is a little in hiding at the moment so I have doubts about my ability to speak with any degree of intelligence and cogency from a more analytical place right now. So I thought I'd prefer to write a little bit, over three posts, about the fundamental components as I see them of a poem.

Before I go on, apologies for the density of the text below - blogger for some reason is not allowing line breaks – swear words at technology! Might try and tweak it later but right now dogwalking and supper cooking is calling...

Poetry, for me, draws together the heart, the soul and the mind.  
Plus every time one starts to write a poem, an act of discovery is involved. This is the same whether you’ve written two poems, or two thousand. 
Poetry has been described as the laboratory, or the workshop, of language. It seems to me that a poem grows as if in a Petri dish outwards from the original droplet, seed, or idea born in the heart, through the meaning towards which it's stretching via feeling/imaginative expression (content) mediated by the shaping powers of the intellect (execution). 
In this post I want to speak a little of the heart aspect of poetry. Before I do that, I want to add here John O'Donohue's beautiful and visionary words about poetry (and if I've posted them before, well – a reminder's always useful).
  ‘Poems are some of the most amazing presences in the world. I am always astounded that poems are willing to lie down and sleep inside the flat, closed pages of books. If poems behaved according to their essence, they would be out dancing on the seashore or flying to the heavens or trying to rinse out the secrets of the mountains… When you read a great poem, it reaches deep into regions of your life and memory and reverberates back to you forgotten or invisible regions of your experience… lost or silent territories of feeling or thought… A poem can travel far into your depths to retrieve your neglected longing.’
  The territory of the heart      Poetry speaks the language of the heart in a way that no other literature does, and many people come to reading and/or writing poetry at a time of deep personal feeling – maybe the tenderness and sensitivity of adolescence, or maybe after a time of heightened emotion – after a loss, or when falling in love – when one feels as if something inside oneself has broken open. In this way poetry may be cathartic: both expressive, and a means of healing or coming to terms with what is being expressed. One’s early poetry then is likely to be full of feeling – and that’s how it should be. Poetry needs to register in and feed the heart – a kind of counter to the thin diet of Western materialism, for instance. 
Looking back on our early poetry we can feel excruciating embarrassment; but in fact that early work is a gift, allowing something that is pushing at the surface to erupt into our lives. Starting as it so often does with the raw, the deeply personal, it has its roots in authentic experience which cannot be contrived. However, great feeling is not in itself great poetry. After that initial outpouring of feeling comes the time to shape and refine it. With experience comes a greater degree of sophistication, where one learns to use original imagery, a keener structure, and more subtle language instead of the usual over-emotional or sentimental expression or clichéd phraseology and self-consciously ‘poetic’ words with which, often, one starts. Nonetheless, to my mind poetry needs to express some level of emotional literacy if it's to speak to more than our intellect.
Poetry then is a meeting point between the heart and the head; in other words, it requires both the image-making feeling nature that is associated with the right hemisphere of the brain, and the more linear, analytical speech-based functions of the left brain.
And then there is the mysterious indefinable quality that breathes into it so that it becomes a living thing with its own identity; and which is more than a synergy of heart and head. More on that soon.

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